Listen to the Kids

Positive parenting with sensitive children

Can Children Learn to Negotiate?

Yes! Six keys to negotiation

Young children, teenagers, and even preschoolers struggle with common conflicts and arguments.

Toddlers and preschoolers: Power struggles over naptime; who owns that toy; bedtime is too early; why do I have to leave now; I don’t want to eat that; I can’t find my teddy; I don’t want to wear my boots.

First graders and second graders: I don’t want to go to school; I want to take my iPad to school; my friend said I was stupid; he isn’t nice; she pushed me; I want to be first in line.

Third graders through fifth graders: I want to take my smartphone to school; I don’t need my parka and hat; he was mean; I want that computer now; I have to go to recess; I want to be first to kick the ball in soccer; he’s a loser; I want to win.

Middle school kids: I want to use my computer before I do my homework; I need my smartphone; my friend is teasing me; I like Minecraft; I don’t want to go outside; my friend doesn’t like me; my friends leave me out; my sister bugs me.

High school students: I hate to do my homework; I just want to work on the computer; I like violent games and that’s it; my friend makes fun of me; my girlfriend’s parents let her go out.   

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There are many resource books on negotiation that you can read to young kids and some for parents of teens. But, the reality is that every individual child is different and responds to conflict in the best way they can, given their own biology, their experience with peers, and their teaching environment. Families also have different cultural values around conflict. In some families, conflict by young children isn’t allowed. In other cultures, only boys can be in conflict, while in some areas of the world, the only conflict is war; children cannot negotiate, only survive. 

In some families, the child tries to negotiate with a parent who is abusive. The mother can’t always protect her child, but she is often legally blamed for not negotiating with the father to leave her child alone. How can you win when someone is twice your size and mean? Some problems are tied to the nature of a difficult family or school situation. When some children face a bully, they can only run, and find an adult to do the negotiation. The whole area of helping children find strategies for negotiation is vast. It varies by children’s needs, by families’ culture, by family stressors, by lack of or attempts at school intervention, and by the world culture of violence.

Adults have difficulty resolving conflicts between themselves, so we can imagine how hard it is for young children who are just learning to talk to each other. Yet, even preschoolers can learn to solve conflicts when they are non-intrusively assisted by teachers. Carol Gross, assistant professor of childhood education at the City University of New York, studied preschoolers’ conflicts for a year. She found that with assistance the children made substantial progress in their ability to resolve conflicts1.

Elementary school children struggle with understanding how to make connections with friends, with learning how not to be a “sore loser.” They insist that they are independent. Middle school is all about social groups and relationships. Some kids are sensitive and will get into conflict instantly over almost anything. High school students are intent on winning, doing well, and finding a friend that is close and trustworthy. The path to resolving these conflicts and issues of life is not an easy one.

Years ago, I spent a few weeks at the Harvard Negotiation Project where one of my teachers was Roger Fisher, the late author of Getting to Yes.2 The following suggestions are drawn from that experience and my memory of how Dr. Fisher taught us to negotiate. He believed that successful negotiation has distinct steps that help two people in a dispute reach a good solution. According to Bruce Patton, Co-Founder and Distinguished Fellow at the Negotiation Project, “As children build relationships and understand their own interests better, sometimes what they want actually changes, making resolutions easier.” In my book, Your Successful Preschooler, I attempted to explain how children could model adult negotiation skills. 

Since I wrote that book, I’ve learned that, like many parents, not all children find it easy or natural to find a solution, and some have family traditions that keep them in a “retreat” mode, or in a “battle until you win” mode. I think they can learn, but it’s easier for some. This relates to Harvard University Professor Robert Kegan’s stages of development.3 It’s important to appreciate different points of view when both make sense.  Going for the all or nothing may lead to disaster for everyone. Some kids also have a natural tendency to see the perspective of another person, and to bring up options for mutual gain.  Some children need an experience with a mentor that helps them use more creativity and they can grow beyond their own family or cultural traditions and develop their own thinking. I firmly believe that kids are capable of learning to negotiate. Literature and books also inspire children to make changes in their own thinking. Sometimes children build new friendships and want to actually change as they understand their own interests and the interests of others. I think these suggestions will give parents and teachers a platform to begin a negotiation and to help mentor kids to come to a solution that may be separate from the original conflict; however, a solution to find a new way of thinking that will help all kids in relationships. 

Suggestions/Steps to Agreement

The first step is: Don’t bargain over positions

This means that, somehow, you have to convince your child, when he is calm, that he doesn’t need to be the “best” or “first in line” or “win every game.” If you are a teacher, you can have this discussion with several children in a classroom. Winning is a hard subject to discuss. No one wants to be a “sore loser” but all kids want to win some of the time.4 Give children language they can use on themselves or with another child to help change from a negative to a positive perspective.  Instead of having a tantrum because they lost a game, the child can say, “Oh, bummer, I lost! Maybe next time!”  I teach older kids to talk to themselves and say, “I’m an okay person. I’m really good at this and I just missed this time.”

Parents and teachers have to control their own feelings and try not to “blame” a child or to feel like the child is “bad” for not winning. All children know the pressure of having to “win” because mom or dad is watching the game. It’s important not to find fault before you try to negotiate with your child. If a parent tells a child, “Your room is always a mess. It’s hopeless!” the child will be in negative mood before you begin to compromise. Maybe the child is tired or maybe he thinks that cleaning up  is boring. You can offer to help or offer a positive activity after he cleans his room. This doesn’t always work, but you can try it.

The second step is: Separate the dispute or the problem from the kids

Once a dispute between two children is over and both kids are calm, you can talk about this “problem” as a separate thing from them. They need to see it as a clear disagreement, but not one that is a part of their own brain or personality. Help them talk about it in their own words and be sure each child has time to talk. Be sure to make the “rule” that blaming each other isn’t allowed. I’ve heard kids describe their problem with concise language, often better than I could explain it.

The third step is: Focus on finding a “Shared Interest.”

Children usually understand that every problem has two sides. To find a solution, each child needs to understand the other child’s side, and that neither one is “at fault”; they just think differently. If they can agree that each of them wants the problem solved, but in different ways, they can begin looking for what Roger Fisher calls a “shared interest.”

If we look hard, we all have shared interests. A shared interest for preschoolers may be that they both want to keep playing with each other. The elementary school child may have a shared interest of becoming friends with the other child. The high school student’s interest may be to find a friend with whom she can develop a computer software program. These interests can be almost anything. The teacher or parent’s job is to lead them to this realization. The shared interest is a turning point for negotiation. Even in negotiations between world leaders, there are shared interests – in saving the environment or keeping the world from a disaster or world war. Sometimes we forget these shared interests and argue for our own ideas, disregarding others.

The fourth step is: Invent and create options for mutual gain

The task of brainstorming options is important for all ages. It takes time to get two children to think about how to solve a problem. For example, if two kids want to use the same iPad app and there is only one iPad, they can talk to each other about how to be happy with one iPad. One may suggest, “Oh, I can play on my smartphone while you use the soccer game. Then we can switch.”  Or one child uses the game for 10 minutes while the other child cheers him on and then they switch places. Another option might be to ask an adult if there is another iPad in the house. Then they can play the soccer game together and share comments.  

This seems like it would be easy to do, but it takes kids time and practice to get used to finding options. Once they learn this technique, they will use it on their own. Older students know how to find options, but need reminders to be more creative when thinking of ways to share. Even older teens need facilitation in negotiations with each other until they can do this on their own. And of course adults frequently forget to seek options that will keep each side happy – that is, one person gets to “win” while the other “participates”; then they change places so the other person can “win.” Obviously, this takes practice; both parties need to be in a calm mode to do the negotiation. If the parties can find a shared interest, they can remind each other during the negotiation to state that interest, such as “we love each other”, and move on to solve the problem.

The fifth step is: Insist on Using Objective Criteria

Criteria have to be set for all negotiations. Young children are the most sensitive to their perceptions of fairness. They want to agree on the basic rules for the current negotiation and in future ones.  Each child can make a list of what is “fair” in the situation. For example, they can use a rule that “While one person is stating his position, the other person can’t interrupt.” This allows a child to use the rule in future conflicts. The adult can review the rules before a new conflict arises, if possible. For example, with elementary students, a rule could be, “No hitting, shoving, kicking or yelling mean words or threats.” If both children can agree to this rule, they may remember for their future conflicts.  Never yield to pressure. If one child insists on his criteria only, ask him to give you a reason and suggest a new rule that could apply. Pressure can be a bribe, a threat, a manipulation, or a simple refusal to budge, according to Roger Fisher. Stick to the agreement on what are the specific rules for the negotiation.

One of my favorite books for young children, Give it Back!, by Shimrit Nothman,5 incorporates several of these steps in a natural, calm way. One night, Justine finds that her bear is missing, and eventually sees her brother playing with it. In a “rage”, she gets her bear back, but is upset that she fought with her brother. Her toy bunny, kangaroo and bear all comfort her, then give her good advice about what to do. She goes to sleep thinking about the best way to become friends again with her brother, and the next morning follows the animals’ advice.

Of course, this is one child with one struggle and it can’t apply to all children. Some children could never wait until the next morning. Even high school students have trouble waiting to negotiate when there is a heated argument. Adults also have to make rules to wait, but when they can’t agree to that rule, they explode on the spot. 

The sixth step is: Develop your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement)

It’s important to explore ideas about what you might do if you can’t come to an agreement. Teachers and parents have to be creative to think of ideas that may satisfy both parties if they can’t come to an agreement. Talk to both parties and generate a list of actions to take if you can’t agree. For example, if your friend will not come over to create a new software program, maybe you can just ask another friend or do it yourself. If you think of these ideas before you negotiate, your struggle to compromise may be easier. You know that you have something to do if everything else doesn’t work. Select the one idea that seems the best, and write it down. For the young child, you can help him think what he can do if he doesn’t get to use the iPad at all. Perhaps he can use the iPad at home with his dad after he plays with his friend. Maybe you put away the iPad that they are arguing over, and they play soccer outside instead.

I caution parents and teachers that not all children can be calm, brainstorm options, set criteria for a conflict, and think of what to do if they don’t agree. Some family cultures don’t allow conflict or only allow certain members of the family to be in a conflict. Still, over many years of working with kids, regardless of their family values, I found that most kids can make rules about fighting when they want to find an agreement. However, if someone took my iPhone when I wasn’t looking and starting texting a friend, I’m not sure I could be calm and wait until morning!

 Summary of Five Steps for Child Negotiation

1. Forget “being the best or first” and don’t place blame on others.

2. Find a calm moment to identify the problem as separate from the child.

3. Find the “shared interest.”

4. Brainstorm options for mutual gain.

5. Establish rules and criteria for later problems.

6. Develop your BATNA (Best alternative to a Negotiated Agreement).

Remember that to help the child or student see that “As a negotiator, you will always want to look for solutions that will leave the other side satisfied as well.” If one child feels cheated, then the outcome isn’t good for both children. There is not one single method that guarantees success in this complex area of teaching kids to come to an agreement, be kind, and negotiate. But, children can learn to negotiate with time, practice and support.

Resources:

1Gross, C. “Conflict Resolution in Preschool: What Part Does Teacher Mediation Play? in Conflict Resolution & Negotiation Journal, 2013, vol. 2013, Issue 2, p. 35-73.

2Fisher, R., William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, 3rd Ed.(Penguin, 2011).

 3Kegan, Robert, In Over Our Heads, (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1994).

 4Oberdorf, J.: “Sore Loser,” Parents, 85th Anniversary Issue, October 2011, p. 186-89.

 5Shimrit Nothman, Give it back! 2nd edition (January 7, 2014), Kindle edition, Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

 Shimrit Nothman, No, it’s mine!, (2014) Kindle edition, Amazon Digital Services, Inc. (This is the same story as Give it Back , but told from the point of view of Justine’s little brother.)

Ann Densmore, Ed.D., CCC SLP/A is a certified speech and language pathologist and audiologist.

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